Articles by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
March 18, 2016
The world, it seems, might be better off without religion. Witness the horrific violence of the Islamic State. But what if religion is not the problem, but the solution?
JS: We're talking about the five sibling rivalry stories in Genesis: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and the two sisters, Leah and Rachel RDS: Not at the end of the book, but at the concluding part of the heart of the book on the dynamics of sibling rivalry, you say, "What if it turned out to be God's way of saying to us, all of these stories—what He said to Cain, that violence in a sacred cause is not holy, but an act of desecration?—What if God were saying, 'Not in My name,'" Such a suggestion sounds absurd That sentence, God hates Esau, comes from Malachi at the last of all the prophets, at least 1000 years in real time, nearer 2000 years after the story of Jacob and Esau, so that's a very, very late line in the Hebrew Bible, highly specific to the political circumstances of the Israelites against the Edomites Did anyone have any problem talking about radical Jews or radical Christians? We're honest about that and I think freedom needs honesty Until relatively recently, people of different faiths never read their sacred texts in the company of people of other faiths, so they never really thought what would it be like to be Esau reading the story of Esau and Jacob or what would it be like if I see my ancestor as Ismael and Abraham throws him out or Sarah throws him out because she doesn't want him mixing with my son Isaac? We never sat and read those texts in the global, interconnected context that we now have to read them Every religion has to do the work for itself, but sometimes, you can help people in another faith by saying, "Look, guys, I can't do Islamic theology for you, but I can tell you how, as a Jew, I understand these narratives, which are part of my faith and they're also part of your faith RDS: I want to turn for a moment, and talk about this book called The Great Partnership, which was written four or five years ago on faith and reason, God, science, and the search for meaning He has a choice to make and in this relationship between faith and science, you say science, the world of prediction, the world of order, the world of repetition, doesn't leave room for freedom in the same way as the Hebrew Bible I suddenly realized there's more going on in Genesis than meets the eye and that is when I reread all of those narratives and realized we might have here the answer to the sibling rivalry that in a macro scale has poisoned relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims over the centuries I suddenly realized that if Freud knew that sibling rivalry was the primary driver of human violence, the Hebrew Bible certainly knows that because almost the entire theme of Genesis is sibling rivalry Why that's interesting, if I might summarize for those who haven't read the book, is that you say that if all Muslims thought that we should be Muslim or all Christians thought everybody should be Christian or Catholic or Protestant, that wouldn't solve the problem Jews gave the world this literature of freedom and hope, ultimately, the faith that we share, the Judeo-Christian heritage—and those are the twin foundations of Western civilization—are a coming together of the Hebraic and the Hellenistic worlds And that's the dynamic where you locate the seeds of rivalry, long before there are Christians and Jews and Muslims, Because our powers of destruction are so great and if religion is—as it undeniably is—part of the problem, then we are called on, I think, by God Himself, to make it part of the solution also He offers a playful, but serious correction to John Paul because he said, "When we read the biblical stories, the elder brother gets the short end of the stick, so let's not say our elder brothers in the faith, but our brothers Rebekah, while the twins are struggling in her womb, goes to God and says, "Why am I suffering?" God says, "There are two nations in your womb and the older will serve the younger Last scene of Joseph and his brothers, the last chapter of Genesis: forgiveness and reconciliation But then, when you're looking at the roots of violence, and our world has become very violent—whole swaths of the surface of this planet are imploding in a black hole of violence, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, you name it—you start looking at the roots of violence Out of their deep study of the Hebrew Bible, they came up with, to my mind, the five greatest ideas of the modern age "social contract, the moral limits of power, liberty of conscience, the doctrine of toleration, and, most important of all, human rights You said the long history of Christians and Jews and Muslims reading salvation history is that in choosing one, God rejects the other